Executive Director Hazel Cook:
Stewarding the Land Trust’s Preserves, Looking forward to 2017
This month, we asked our Executive Director, Hazel Cook, to share with us about the Land Trust’s annual land stewardship program. As our lead environmental expert for the past decade, Hazel oversees the establishment of our conservation easement projects and annually monitors the more than 7,300 acres of land that we preserve. We invite you to hear from Hazel in her own words about the Land Trust’s environmental stewardship responsibilities, as well as some of the exciting projects on the horizon:
Q: Tell us a little bit about the Land Trust’s Stewardship Program. What’s it all about?
A: When the Land Trust preserves a farm or a forest, we are promising “forever” to our landowners, and to our community. Preserving land with a conservation easement ensures that it will remain natural and green, generation after generation. In order to make good on that promise, the Land Trust works in continuous partnership with our landowners. Part of that process involves visiting the land we preserve at least once a year. Many times we’re out there much more often than that, depending on the property. But we like to check in with the land itself, every acre, at least once a year. In the conservation industry, that’s the gold standard.
Q: Walk us through a typical annual land stewardship visit. What happens? How is the landowner involved?
A: Stewardship visits are one of those rare gems that are both fundamentally important and really enjoyable. They’re one of my favorite parts of the job. Every year, our Stewardship team takes time to meet with the landowners in our network and walk the land. We talk about the changes that have taken place over the past year – the weather, mostly. Sometimes crops have failed, or a farmer needs to change direction on how he’s managing his land. Sometimes a family member has passed on and the land will be changing hands. Sometimes, it’s just been a great year and we reflect on the blessing that consistency brings. Whatever has happened, we talk about it and how the land may be affected.
Then we walk the land. We take note of the highlights, the issues (anyone remember the ice storm?), and we call to mind the reason the land is protected. The original conservation easement document, as well as the reports from previous years’ visits, are enormously helpful to guide our assessment. We look for anything that might be in violation of the conservation easement – the directive that sets forth what can and can’t be done with the land. We take photos that show how the land is growing and changing year after year. And most importantly, we stay in tune with the land and its caretakers. Our job is to assist them in the good work they are already doing, keeping our region healthy, productive, green, and beautiful.
Q: What happens after the visit?
A: After our visit with the land and its caretaker, we draw up a report that reflects our discussions and observations from the visit. Photos are a big part of that report, as they are truly worth a thousand words. Each photo is located on a map, along with descriptions so that future generations can look back and understand the land’s progress over time. These reports are then reviewed for accuracy and signed by both the landowner and the Land Trust. They are also reviewed every 5 years by the Land Trust Accreditation Commission, an independent national body that certifies that we are operating at the highest quality standards.
Q: What happens to this report? What role does it play in preservation?
A: The reporting process is vital to ensuring the land’s preservation long-term. In fact, we begin each conservation project with what we call a Baseline Documentation Report – a fancy way of introducing the land and all its features, on paper. Before we even preserve a landscape, we prepare this report, which is also signed by both the landowner and Land Trust.
Then, each year, our annual visit becomes an update to this original report. It’s similar to how a physician would track a child’s growth as they mature – measuring against time-tested benchmarks. For the land, these benchmarks are found in the conservation easement itself and in state and federal standards for best land management practices.
Q: Why prepare these reports? How are they used?
A: By preparing these reports, we are recording the history of the land, and we can easily see if something is out of whack. Our goal, really, is to anticipate and intercept problems before they arise. That is why we work so closely with our landowners. But when problems do arise, we can use the reports and the conservation easement’s directives to guide us.
Sometimes, these problems are natural (again: remember the ice storm?). Sometimes, though, they are man-made and can be in violation of the conservation easement. In that case, we have a series of remedies at our disposal to help make it right. For instance, we maintain insurance as well as an endowment fund specifically for stewarding these properties long term, which includes covering the cost of legal action, if necessary, to ensure the land stays the way we promised that it would.
Over the years, we have been fortunate to avoid legal action in just about every case. I attribute that to the strength of our relationship with our landowners. They are the stars of the show. Our job is to help support them and make sure they understand the boundaries set by the conservation easement. If we do our job right the first time, we greatly reduce the stress and strain on the land, and the likelihood of corrective action.
Q: Can you give us an example of a recent stewardship success story?
A: There are so many success stories, it is tough to choose just one. One of my favorites is a project here in Richmond County that started in 2009 when a couple of savvy landowners bought 160 acres in South Augusta. The land had been heavily impacted by the previous owners, who had dammed the creek over a dozen times to create a series of unnatural ponds and impoundments. Our landowners decided to turn the property around and restore the land using a mechanism known as a mitigation bank.
While the details are complicated, the results speak for themselves. By removing the dams, restoring the creek’s natural meandering path, and planting native trees and shrubs, the landowners have completely transformed this landscape in less than a decade. What once was a relatively dead and scrubby hillside, is now teeming with life and vitality. The long leaf pines, planted as mere 9-inch twigs in 2010, are now more than 12 feet tall and will soon provide additional habitat for one of our local endangered birds: the red cockaded woodpecker.
Through proper land management, and a little ingenuity, these landowners have completely changed the landscape for the benefit of our local wildlife, water quality, and of course scenic beauty. It is such a joy to visit the land every year and to see the little seedlings take over and build a forest before your very eyes.
Q: You have a Masters in International Environmental Policy. How does your degree help you in your role here in Augusta, GA?
A: A lot of people ask me what I’m doing, working locally with an international degree. But really, what my degree program prepared me for was how to work with differing entities that share a common natural resource. For us here in Augusta, the Savannah River is a classic example. We have three communities in two states here in the CSRA that all pull their drinking water from the Savannah. We have multiple towns and municipalities that all have different ideas on how to use the river, whether to build houses on the riverfront or to leave it natural, for instance. It’s a shared resource that belongs to both states and all people. Making policy decisions that honor all the participants was a key component of my graduate research. The resulting knowledge I gained, I use daily in my role at the Land Trust.
Q: What are you most excited about for the Land Trust plans in 2017? How can the community be a part of making these plans come to life and live up to their utmost potential?
A: For me, “connectivity” is the 2017 word of the year. This year we are seeing progress across the region on projects, both environmental and economic, that connect the community to itself, to the natural world, and to neighboring communities and resources. For the past 15 years, the Land Trust has been working on conservation projects in Columbia, Richmond, and Aiken Counties. During that same time, our local governments have been working on their own greenways and street-side trails. This year, we are seeing a convergence of all of these efforts with the establishment of a Regional Greenway Trail network that spans all three counties. For the first time, we are seeing real momentum behind these projects that will unite the three counties with thousands of acres of greenspace and more than 150 miles of walking and biking trails.
One specific aspect of this project that I am jazzed about is the prospect of connecting the North Augusta Greeneway and South Carolina’s Welcome Center, with the Augusta Canal Trail, the Georgia Welcome Center, the Village at Riverwatch’s retail, business, and residential areas, and Augusta’s street-side trails – all with one project. The Departments of Transportation for Georgia and South Carolina have signed an historic agreement to replace the I-20 bridges over the Canal and River in 2018, and we are in negotiations with them to include pedestrian/bike access in the new bridges. This will be a major link connecting the two states, and a landmark for unity that will likely stand for the remainder of our lifetimes, if not longer.
From the Land Trust’s perspective, not only will this create more connectivity for outdoor recreation, but it will connect our community to one of the most iconic landscapes in the region: the view of the River from I-20. You know you turn your head to the side to catch a glimpse when you drive over the bridge: admit it! It’s one of the best in town. And guess what: over 1,000 acres of that landscape – pretty much everything you can see looking downstream – is permanently preserved with conservation easements. The new bridge connection will give everyone in our community a chance to (safely) view this beautiful landscape and connect to the heart of our local landscape.
Q: What are some of your most treasured outdoor activities and locations in the CSRA?
A: One of my favorite things is to get lost in nature, even if just for a few moments. I love to find spots that transport me far from hectic daily life, to a place of peace and tranquility. Luckily, here in the CSRA, those spots are all around us. I live near the Augusta Canal, and I often take walks or bike rides through the upper half of the heritage area (from the pumping station to the headgates). This area is preserved by the Land Trust, which gives me extra peace of mind that it will stay natural and tranquil for the long haul.
I also enjoy the drive from Thompson to Athens along Hwy 78, Hwy 28 from the Savannah River to Parksville in SC, and the back roads between Washington and Lincolnton. So many farms and fields, with cattle and sheep in the pasture – it’s heaven with the windows down. When I had my motorcycle, I would ride these roads just to see the scenery and spend time in the quiet. The Parksville Recreational Area is a favorite of mine to stop and sit by the lake.
And then of course, I can’t forget the Land Trust’s preserve in North Augusta: Greystone. We have been working so intimately with that landscape to develop it into something the whole community can enjoy and be proud of. When I want to roll up my sleeves, or take a brisk hike, Greystone’s my place. Stay tuned for more on Greystone later this year…
Q: Do you have a favorite mantra or quote about the meaning of life or the natural world that inspires you?
A: Yes. I’ve heard these saying attributed to Zen masters and ancient Greeks. I’m not sure who first coined the phrases, but they ring true today. The first is this: “You should sit in nature for 20 minutes every day. Unless you’re busy. Then, you should sit for an hour”. And the second: “A society grows great when men plant trees under whose shade they will never sit”. One speaks to the daily renewal that nature provides, the other to the responsibility we have to those who come after us.